"I haven't eaten all day," says the 12th district City Council member who is making his second run for mayor. It is 4 p.m. as he sits down for lunch at the Terra Cafe. He orders a turkey burger, substituting salad for fries and wheat toast for the usual roll.
On the TV behind Stokes, fellow candidate David Warnock's commercial comes on. "All this gloom and doom," Stokes says, studying the images of his rival. "You'll notice that on the street, it's all African-Americans, but in the board room you never see any."
Stokes' message is not exactly sugar sprinkles and rainbows. He's tired of losing. Make him mayor, he says, so he can really work for you, really get real audits, not knuckle under to the powers that secretly—and not-so-secretly—control our politicians.
Stokes is down on developers—and suggested they're down on him for being "too community-oriented."
Stokes wants to remind voters that he is the one who stood against the bottle tax. He was the one against the cell phone tax. He tried to stand against Ticketmaster, the Hippodrome, the Orioles and the Ravens and for regular concert ticket buyers who get fleeced by the fees the corporate ticket resellers charge.
The corporate scalpers beat him on this, convincing the mayor and City Council to change an old city law that forbids scalping, so it allows corporations to do it.
"I consider myself an outsider who happens to be inside," Stokes says. "I've been trying to break this insider corruption, and I'm having a hard time doing it as a single vote." He amends it—four votes, sometimes, when a few other righteous city council members join him.
Stokes is for a $15 minimum wage. He says he would create a land bank to manage surplus city property.
Stokes estimates the level of corruption within the city bureaucracy at "a high-seven-plus [out of 10]." He says it's not necessarily the people who are corrupt, but the system—a system in which city departments do not have financial books so they cannot be audited. "When you have a system where the good workers tell management that tenants are getting raped at Gilmor Homes—and they get fired. And they're afraid of getting killed by the rapist..." He is referring to the two-dozen women who sued the Housing Authority last fall, saying workers had forced themselves on them or refused to make needed repairs unless the women had sex with them. It was just the latest in a string of scandals in many city agencies.
The city pays out millions in lawsuits but does not disclose why. "We should disclose all the facts," Stokes says. "At least do that. We don't have to say that we're guilty."
If elected, Stokes says, he would ask for all department heads' resignations. "I don't mean that I would accept them all."
Asked how he would create jobs, Stokes says he would increase the amount of city grants and matching funds to the Main Streets programs by a factor of 10—from $25,000 to $250,000. "In Baltimore, nine out of every 10 new jobs come from small businesses," he says, "even though, nationally, the ratio is closer to 50-50."
It's still a small investment—10 or so Main Streets times $250,000 each is only $2.5 million worth of signage, awnings and marketing. In a town so allergic to big box stores already, it's hard to see how that's going to make a big dent in a 37 percent unemployment rate among young African-American men.
Stokes says he'd find a way to make all new police officers and fire fighters all live in the city as well, citing the economic impact of such a policy. Currently only 21 percent of city cops live within city limits, WBAL discovered last summer.
Stokes also intends to "bring back the dollar house" (the legendary Schaeffer-era give-away credited with gentrifying Otterbein) and offer the houses in five neighborhoods (he's not sure which ones yet) that "are closer to up than down."
All of Stokes' ambitious plans rest on this precept: build out from strength. He describes how a team would come into a neighborhood "on the cusp," remove or fix a dozen vacants, while code enforcement and healthy homes programs nudged the other owners to do the same. A good school, playgrounds and public spaces, stores, and a cop on the beat who doesn't even get a car animate Stokes' vision.
"Every kid who needs a job gets one," he says. "It might take 24 months to get it in shape. Then I'm going to go to the adjacent neighborhood."